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Review Round-up: South Downs & The Browning Version

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The Chichester transfer of the South Downs and The Browning Version double bill opened at the Harold Pinter theatre last night (25 April 2012) to enthusiastic notices.

South Downs is a specially commissioned companion piece written by David Hare in response to Terence Rattigan's The Browning Version.

Both examine life in boarding public school with Anna Chancellor and Nicholas Farrell featuring in both pieces but the evening is generally acknowledged to belong to 17-year-old newcomer Alex Lawther who plays the central role of Blakemore in  South Downs

Michael Coveney

"The arrival in the West End of David Hare's tremendous new play South Downs on a double-bill with Terence Rattigan's classic The Browning Version from last year's Chichester Festival Theatre season marks a special moment in the history of the school play... Both plays are set in English public schools (Hare went to Lancing College in Sussex, Rattigan to Harrow) and share a brilliant, adaptable brown-panelled design by Tom Scutt that can allow the fluidity of Hare&'s play in contrast to the rigid sitting room of the Crocker-Harris's apartment... In South Downs, talented newcomer Alex Lawther plays the tortured Blakemore with a mixture of confusion and submission that is deeply touching... In all, it's a great evening of British theatre and Hare holds his own with Rattigan, providing lots of good jokes in suggesting that Blakemore's anxiety about the bomb is not unrelated to his unhappiness at school. South Downs is as much a period piece, in its way, as The Browning Version, and fully earns its right to share the billing in the newly christened Harold Pinter."

Fiona Mountford
Evening Standard

"Both these school-set dramas cleverly revolve around unexpected acts of kindness, one seen from the perspective of a pupil and the other from that of a teacher. They show men of all ages emotionally adrift in our great public schools, but tentatively offer shards of hope for uncertain futures. In Hare’s dryly witty South Downs, confidently directed by Jeremy Herrin who himself enjoyed a soaring 2011, the teenage Blakemore (excellently played by newcomer Alex Lawther), socially awkward and poorer than his peers, can’t quite get the hang of fitting in. The prospect of change hovers in the early ‘60s air, but it’ s only Anna Chancellor’s glamorous actress, the mother of a well-meaning older pupil, who seems to comprehend the poor boy’s suffering. Hare perfectly captures the posturing, questioning and awkwardness of adolescence, and we only wish the piece could go on longer. If it did, though, we wouldn’t get to The Browning Version, which would be disastrous as this play packs more truths about the human condition into 70 minutes than most other dramas could manage in a month... Nicholas Farrell’s marvellously controlled but lugubrious delivery shows a meticulous man poignantly aware of his failings as a teacher and a husband ... yet stoically unwilling to declare that he has been more sinned against than sinning. The silences in pAngus Jackson’s fine production are increasingly freighted with weights of emotion. It’s a joy to welcome these theatrical gems to the capital."

Charles Spencer


"I find myself in a quandary with this review. When Chichester’s production of [Terence Rattigan’s masterpiece The Browning Version opened last year in a double-bill with David Hare’s new play, South Downs, also set in an English public school, I gave it a rave review and five stars. Seeing it again on its transfer to the West End, it strikes me as an even greater achievement than it did then. The performances in both pieces seem deeper and more moving, the sense of English decency and reserve even more affecting. But I cannot go higher than five stars, so you will just have to imagine an extra tick in the margin... If South Downs is a very good play, The Browning Version (1948) is an indisputably great one, and I have never seen it better staged than it is here by Angus Jackson... Nicholas Farrell’s performance is extraordinary in its depth of pent-up pain, and when the emotional damn finally cracks, the effect is devastating. What’s equally moving, though, is that Farrell also shows how “the Crock” recovers himself, and somehow finds the strength to go on with a mixture of heroic honesty and dogged courage. There is wonderful support from Anna Chancellor as Millie, his cruel, philandering but not entirely despicable wife, Mark Umbers as her discomfited lover, Liam Morton as the kindly schoolboy and Andrew Woodall as the vile headmaster. If you can sit through this play dry-eyed you must be made of steel."

Dominic Maxwell
The Times

"Both can make you laugh and even cry with the way they entertain the idea that pragmatism and playing the game is the key to success while ultimately suggesting that, no, life has to be richer than that. South Downs comes first. It is David Hare’s most buoyant work in years. Although it is highly personal — scholarship boy Blakemore shares some of the playwright’s background — it is also witty, vivid, erudite and always enjoyable as it evokes the hierarchies and priorities of boarding-school boys in 1962. We get a stream of hilarious yet touching lines as Hare traces the way that changing the world once felt both doable and a duty. Alex Lawther, in his first acting role as Blakemore, nails the gently lopsided brilliance of a boy with no idea how to convert his intelligence into influence or happiness. Even his eventual saviour, Anna Chancellor as a glamorous but wise actress, suggests that he has “not a trace” of charm... If, at first, Rattigan seems creaky by comparison, the ideas eventually dig deep in Angus Jackson’s fine production... Nicholas Farrell plays the classics master Crocker-Harris, mocked by the boys, cuckolded by his wife, disrespected by the governors. A terrific performance is superbly supported by Chancellor as his embittered wife, among a fine cast of adult and teenage actors. This pairing makes a hat-trick of West End shows for the Chichester Festival Theatre, which has also brought Sweeney Todd and Singin’ in the Rain to town this year. It’s another inspiring delight."


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